It took me a few tries to wrap my head around this headline about a recent NOAA study:
Did you catch that? We often talk about the "worth" of coral reefs in terms of the revenue they can generate for local communities via fishing or tourism. But this is different. This is the amount of money Americans say they're willing to pay to ensure that Hawaii's reefs are safe and healthy.
The key point here is that the survey pool comprised "a representative sample of all US residents" -- meaning, it included tons of people who have never seen Hawaii's coral reefs and never will. They just like the idea that they exist!
In fact, when you look at per-household figures, it turns out they like it a lot.
The study breaks down coral reef conservation into two types: "Ecosystem-wide Protection & Restoration" and "Restoration after Localized Injuries." (That last one referring to fixing the damage caused by, say, wayward boats.) Put them together and the average amount a household is willing to pay is $287.62.
Sound like a lot? It is. Forgive the rough comparison, but say your household income is $50,000 (about the national median) and you're married with a kid. Two-hundred and eighty-seven dollars is more than you would pay in federal income taxes for everything other than Social Security and Medicare -- meaning national defense, health care, unemployment insurance, education, NASA, FEMA, Homeland Security, and so on, combined. And that's just for the coral reefs in Hawaii!
Who knows if these households are truly prepared to pony up $287 in the name of reef conservation. But even if the number is inflated, it suggests something quite interesting: it may be easy for us to not think about conservation, but it's apparently very difficult for us to choose inaction... so long as we're asked to choose something.
We just got this GLOWING update via email from our field rep in Indonesia about the 99,000-acre marine reserve off the coast of Daram Island. (Seacology is funding the construction of a community center in nearby Fafanlap village in exchange for their support of the reserve)
It was so great we just had to share:
The last time I dived this site was with the Seacology trip in 2007 and while it was spectacular four years ago, the reef has exploded with fish life since then. For the first time we saw schools of Napoleon wrasse, blacktip sharks and aggregations of big grouper, all of which seem to have been locally extinct on most Indonesian reefs for over a decade. There were so many fish on this dive that our heads were spinning. I was emphatically pointing one way and Mark was emphatically pointing another way the whole dive. I came out of that dive exhilarated and full of joy and hope that other reefs in the Misool area, with continued protection, will also look like Fafanlap in just a few short years. If they do, I can foresee that S.E. Misool will have THE best diving in the world, hands down.
During Mitiaro's dry season (typically from June to November) the island's 200 residents must rely on reserves they store in water tanks. When they suffer droughts -- as is the case right now -- they may have to resort to dipping into the island's natural resevoirs, the pristine fresh-water pools found in remote caves.
But even that isn't so simple, since just getting to the pools can be challenging and dangerous. One cave requires that you climb down a tree and then navigate steep, slippery rocks before you reach the water.
Our project in Mitiaro addressed both these issues. In exchange for the conservation of 3,000 acres of forest (roughly a third of the island!) we funded the installation of a safe pathway with handrails to the cave pools, plus the renovation of eight 10,000 gallon water tanks (pictured below).
This Times article about Haiti's dying reefs I think illustrates an important point about marine conservation efforts: it's not necessarily a case of environmentalism-vs-industry. You need to protect reef habitats in order to prevent the kind of "Tragedy of the Commons" scenario we're seeing unfolding in Haiti, where over-fishing continues even when it's obvious it's bad for everyone in the long run.
In Haiti 54,000 fishermen rely on the ocean for their livelihood... [and in] recent decades, as their usual catches of Nassau groupers and snappers have dwindled and disappeared, many of them have subsisted by netting and spearing small reef fish that keep coral clean of algae. Now those too are almost gone, and the algae have taken over....
Pierre Guy LaFontant, Haiti's director general of fisheries, acknowledged that overfishing was a problem and said that officials were receptive to the idea of establishing protected waters. But if the government cannot enforce its existing fishing regulations, can fishermen be persuaded to abide by an invisible line in the water?
But of course it's not as simple as just protecting and waiting, since these Haitian fishermen have basic short-term needs that can't easily be put on hold.
The whole article is worth a read... As bad as things are for Haiti's coral reefs, it's good to know that conservation efforts are beginning.
Henry Hilaire, who has fished for 36 years, gathered nets from a sailboat with several other Haitians in waters that Reef Check hopes will eventually be protected.... Mr. Hilaire pulled two small fish, each about five inches long, from his basket. "It's really too young to keep," he said, but "circumstances are such that if we didn't keep them, we'd go hungry."....
They're desperate, trying to survive, so how do you tell them not to fish here?" asked Romain Louis, 37, a literature teacher hoping to become part of the eco-diver team.
Mr. Louis suggested that the fishermen would need an incentive... "Maybe, if these fishermen got a trade-off, they'd stop fishing on overfished reefs."
So what kinds of creatures are being protected? Here's a quick tour of some of Batukahu Forest's residents:
The forest cat has big eyes and is very ferocious, while the long-tailed macaque looks a little sad, but their babies are adorable.
Meanwhile, the pangolin looks a lot like an armadillo, and the flying fox (AKA the kalong) is not a fox at all, but instead a rather large bat.
Seacology's Field Representative in the Philippines, Ferdie Marcelo, maintains a blog documenting his experiences working to conserve the rich natural resources and ecosystems in the Philippines. His most recent entry details his recent trip to Barangay Malhaio on Cebu Island, where Seacology is funding the construction of a boardwalk and viewing deck in support of the conservation of 73 hectares (180 acres) of mangrove forest for a duration of 15 years. Ferdie's description of working with the community to develop a thorough understanding of the conservation agreement with Seacology is especially engaging.
Seacology's win-win formula is simple. An island community commits to protect a natural resource, and in return, Seacology funds a tangible need of the community. To finalize the agreement, a Covenant between the community and Seacology is then signed.
The covenant is not complicated. It
just stipulates a few important points: that Seacology will provide the funds
required to build the tangible; that Seacology will not claim ownership over
any land or sea belonging to the community; and that in return the community pledges
to protect the no-take zone agreed on.
From past experience, this process is usually straightforward. The village will sign the covenant, and the construction will commence. That is, until the village of Malhiao raised a few questions that I thought should be answered face to face.
It took a good three hour ride to get to Malhiao from Cebu City, past the noted beaches of Argao and Moalboal. The barangay's leaders, led by putative Barangay Captain James Taboada, were waiting for us by the time Delfa Talaid of Tambuyog (Seacology's project partner) and I got there late morning yesterday. "Putative" because he is all but officially that, the previous Barangay Captain having died from a stroke the week before, I was just informed. Burial is today, July 3.
The object of the covenant is the village's commitment to protect 73 hectares of mangroves for 15 years, in exchange for Seacology's funding of the construction of a boardwalk and view deck on the Mangroves. The community hopes to develop its own tourism industry by showcasing their lush mangroves.
Of the many concerns they raised, I found four to be particularly incisive, which I have listed below along with my response to each:
Question: What exactly does a "no-take zone" mean? The community conducts mangrove planting activities every once in a while, and there is a concern as to whether activities of that sort will constitute a violation of the covenant. In fact, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, in partnership with Malhiao, has a continuing program where parolees go to Malhiao to plant mangrove trees as part of their community service. Incorporating tree planting in future educational tours are planned as well.
Answer: Tree planting is allowable because this is not extractive
Question: Enforcing the no-take zone among the villagers of Malhiao is not a problem, but some fisherfolk from neighboring barangays go to the mangroves to collect shellfish for food. Will people still be allowed to gather shellfish within the mangroves if the mangrove trees themselves are left alone?
Answer: No. Setting aside the mangroves as a no-take zone means
that gathering of any sort is prohibited. The benefits of this policy will
redound to the five-hectare multi-use zone that the community has also
declared. Maintaining an undisturbed mangrove area means more juvenile marine
life will have a chance to grow into spawning adults, and the resulting
spillover to the multi-use zone will mean more bountiful harvests. It is easy
to imagine noticeable results in the quality of harvests in the multi-use zone
within six months if the mangroves are fully protected.
Question: What if Malhiao is unable to effectively protect the mangroves? Will there be a penalty imposed?
Answer: The first casualty, if the integrity of the mangroves is
ruinously violated, is the productivity of the five-hectare multi-use zone.
That by itself is heavy enough a penalty. Secondarily, the plans of the
community to capitalize on tourism and the potential business it can bring will
be in jeopardy. It will be hard to look for tourists who are willing to pay to
see a mangrove area where people indiscriminately set traps and collect all
sizes of crabs, seashells, and whatnot. But as far as Seacology is concerned,
no penalty can or will be imposed, though it will
be unlikely that we will enter into another agreement with the community in the
Question: Why does Seacology insist on a term on the village's commitment to protect the mangrove?
Answer: The covenants Seacology enters into generally have a term ranging from 10 to 30 years. This stems from Seacology's view that the succeeding generation should be free to make commitments of their own. If after 15 years the next generation decides to continue protecting the mangroves, it will be because they appreciate the merits of doing so; not because they have to honor some agreement their fathers entered into long ago.
We wound up beginning a shared lunch
still discussing the covenant, until the conversations drifted onto other
matters towards the end. Finally, after lunch, with all questions laid to rest,
the covenant was signed.
Then came the many ideas on the mangroves. Educational tours, guided mangrove river canoe rides, and bird watching are some of the possible mangrove activities that could spark the beginnings of tourism. Already, Tambuyog has had talks with the Regional Department of Education highlighting the Malhiao mangroves. As a result, an April 2011 memorandum was issued holding the Malhiao mangroves as a guide in the implementation of the Coastal Ecosystem Education program of the department. To assist the barangay in enforcing the no-take zone, the Municipality of Badian agreed to train some villagers to become mangrove guards, and to provide enforcement support if needed.
Looking back, if the questions on the project were raised as a consequence of the barangay's sudden leadership transition, then a lot of credit must be given to incoming Barangay Captain Taboada. He did not just go along with his predecessor's project. He took the project, analyzed it, and after being satisfied with it, gave it his approval, thereby putting the responsibility for the project squarely within his watch.
With each question I was asked, my impression on the seriousness of how the villagers of Malhiao are taking the covenant only deepened. There was a tour of the mangroves on a makeshift raft later on with some of the village's leaders. It was a really nice and refreshing tour along passages between huge clusters of mangrove trees. But my mind was still on the upturn of the villagers' regard towards their commitment with Seacology since we arrived. I just witnessed their progression from fawn-like tentativeness, to a doe's leap of faith, to a stag's confidence and optimism in the future. All in one day.
It was a good feeling that stayed with me throughout the long bus ride back to Cebu City. And then some.
All pictures from Ferdie Marcelo. To see more of Ferdie's images from his site visit to Malhaio, visit the original post on his blog, Nature Calls.
Last January, Seacology's Board of Directors approved our first project in Jamaica. The project is supporting the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA), the nation's largest protected area, which includes extensive mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. Such coastal ecosystems provide essential habitat to many species of birds, fish, invertebrates, and plants and are vital for islands as protection against erosion and flooding. Seacology partnered with the local organization responsible for managing PBPA to help construct a field office and barracks for use by the professional rangers who enforce the no-take fish sanctuaries in the reserve. To conserve resources, these structures were created out of recycling shipping containers, which convert into excellent (and even two-story!) office buildings.
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Above, villagers in Terian, Borneo, present a sash to Seacology in thanks for funding of a micro-hydro power system.